index lists stories by character & setting


Latest shows the most recent Posts


Storylines group story arcs in recommended reading order

Friends and Killers

Friends and Killers


NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Beryl's Storyline.


I. Questions

 

     Aloise stared at the sunlight as it filtered through the trees, watching it glisten off of the remainder of the morning dew. She wondered what she was doing this for. Not watching the sunlight — which was fascinating, of course, but rather mundane — but waiting here. Again. With a small coin and a smaller, heatless flame. She still had not been able to figure out how the little metal disc worked, but it had produced results the last few times she had used it. She hoped, though, that this time it would do so quickly. Another week of waiting for a certain Fisco Vane to appear would no doubt have her clawing at her eyes in boredom.

     Since they had first met, Aloise had not been able to resist the fount of multiversal knowledge that was Fisco Vane. She contacted him regularly, always ready with a pouch full of gold coins she had earned doing something or other, and spoke with him. Usually, he was a pretty good sport about it. At least, he did not threaten to kill her or call her stupid anymore. She always tried her best to be hospitable, but at his best he was distracted, and at his worst he was downright irritable.

     Still, he kept showing up. So that was something.

     “Interesting place.”

     Aloise blinked as the scratchy voice floated over her, accompanied by the sweet, semi-familiar smell of cigar smoke. She sat up and glanced at her visitor who, predictably, stood beside the small coin she had set upon a stone for him. Fisco did not make a move to pick it up. Aloise crossed her legs. He continued to speak.

     “Isolated. Quiet. The only thing missing is a little darkness.” Fisco puffed idly on his already-lit cigar. The smoke was almost clear, and floated away from the both of them. “But that’s not your style.”

     Aloise watched Fisco Vane for a heartbeat. It occurred to her, vaguely, that they usually met indoors. He looked different in the light of day, outside. Less jagged edges and rough shadows. She could make out bags beneath his perpetually-squinted eyes, lines beneath an ever-present frown. His coat was still immaculate and expensive, though.

     She smiled at him.

     “Hello, Fisco.” Aloise patted her bag. “Tea?” she offered.

     Fisco paused with his cigar halfway to his mouth, lips parted slightly. He blinked once.

     “Do you have any whiskey?” he asked, before putting the cigar in his mouth once more.

     Aloise shook her head.

     He shrugged. “Tea’ll do fine.” He made no move to approach her.

     Aloise busied herself removing a canteen and cups from her pack. When she made tea, it was almost always awful and watery. Luckily, Lys had long since been in the habit of brewing it for her and sending it with her when she went away. Lys’s tea was something that reminded Aloise strongly of her home. The insulated canteen had kept the tea warm, if not quite hot, and as she poured a bit of it into the two cups, Fisco dropped and stepped on his cigar.

     Aloise held up a filled glass for him, though he was still standing across the forest clearing. He approached, unhurried, and took the offering from her, though he made no move to sit. Aloise sipped from her own cup. Just a hint of mint. Lys knew her too well.

     Fisco’s nose wrinkled as he sniffed the tea. He did not drink.

     “What do you want?” he demanded. Aloise looked up at him, sipping from her cup.

     “To talk. Are you busy?” She watched as Fisco’s face took on a guarded and predatory look. His knuckles paled a half a shade, though his hands did not shake. In her stomach, Aloise felt that same warning, that same wrongness, that she remembered feeling when she first met this man.

     Still, she smiled at him, plain and genuine.

     “Questions cost money, doll,” Fisco muttered. “You know that.”

     Aloise had anticipated that protest, and so reached into her bag once more, producing a small pouch of coins. She shook it.

     “Penny for your thoughts?” Aloise offered, smiling.

     Air escaped from Fisco’s nose, and his expression did not change. Still, that was… almost a laugh? Maybe?

     “I get that I’m mysterious and interesting,” Fisco drawled, finally decided to take a sip of the tea. He grimaced, and then continued more pointedly, looking down at her with narrowed eyes. “But haven’t you got something better to be doing?”

     Aloise thought for a moment, and then pulled a coin out of her pouch. She handed it to Fisco, who took it almost automatically.

     “Have you?” Aloise asked.

     Fisco did not respond immediately, his nose twitching irritably.

     The silence stretched on for a few tense moments. Aloise sipped her tea.

     Then, Fisco took a deep breath, looked up at the sky, and sighed exasperatedly. He sat down in front of Aloise, his expensive coat fanning out all around him, and drained his cup of tea. She bit back a sigh of relief. Sometimes his moods were... less than hospitable. Now, though, he seemed to be more agreeable. But as he adjusted himself into a position of comfort on the forest floor, she examined him more closely, if discreetly. The circles under his eyes were almost completely black, and the only unwrinkled thing about him was his clothing.

     He looked so… tired.

     Fisco set the empty cup of tea down beside him, out of her reach. He rubbed the bridge of his nose.

     “What is it this time?” Impatient. Irritated, maybe. But that was all in his voice. His face could not be bothered to stay on-message, apparently, because he was simply staring vaguely into the forest.

     “I thought it would be nice to talk with you,” she supplied.

     “Really?” he muttered, then snorted, shaking his head.

     “Well, I do want to talk to you, but not for your winning personality,” Aloise told him, and his eyebrows rose, unimpressed. So she went on: “A friend of mine approached me, asking about you. I’d like you to meet her.”

     Fisco’s expression did not change. “Where is she?” he asked. Then, ever so quickly, his eyes flashed. Excitement? Or something else?

     “You’ve asked more questions than I have. At this rate, you’ll owe me money,” Aloise said, sipping from her half-full cup of tea. Fisco’s jaw tensed, so she smiled at him. “I’m joking, Fisco.”

     She watched him carefully. He relaxed a little, but that was the only reaction. He was wary. Looking for danger. She understood his paranoia, if not necessarily the cause of it. Of course, if half of what Beryl had told her was true…

     But Aloise would not act on rumor alone, even though she held no illusions that Fisco Vane was a good man. If she dealt only with good people, she would have almost no one interesting to talk to. Everyone had redeeming qualities, after all.

     Or rather, they should. Nothing was absolute.

     “Well, if she wants my business, I need to meet her,” Fisco pointed out, patting his jacket. He reached into his coat, and grimaced, then shook his head, but said nothing else.

     “I’m not sure what she wants with you, actually. I didn’t ask.” Aloise’s tea was going to grow cold at the rate she was drinking it. “She just asked me what I knew about you.”

     “What did you say?” he asked blandly, and Aloise shrugged.

     “That I’d met you before and didn’t really know anything about you.” Which was mostly true, after all. They had only spoken a handful of times since they had first met, and she had not gleaned anything especially personal about Fisco Vane during those encounters. Whatever sort of uneasy friendship she had managed to strike up with the older planeswalker was almost completely at the mercy of his capricious whims. “She told a few stories to me about you, though,” Aloise said.

     Fisco just watched her, his face suddenly unreadable. She had not known he could do that. He could have been shrouded in darkness for all the good looking at him was doing her.

     “What kind of stories?” His voice was quiet and dangerous. The hairs on the back of Aloise’s neck stood up. He leaned in towards her ever so slightly. “Any good ones?”

     Aloise sighed as the bottom fell out of her stomach, and then took a deep, steadying breath. It was easy to name all the reasons she should be afraid of this man. Easy to rationalize avoiding him, disliking him. But she was not here because it would be easy, and she was not speaking with him because she was afraid.

     “Stop.” Aloise met Fisco’s gaze, even and determined. “Stop trying to frighten me.”

     His face remained behind whatever unreadable mask he had conjured up, and Aloise finally rolled her eyes.

     “I’m not going to be menaced into submission by you, Fisco Vane, I’ve told you that. I have done nothing wrong and you will treat me with a shred of decency, if only because you owe me for the tea!” After a second, Aloise reined-in her irritation, and looked pointedly away from Fisco. Honestly…

     Fisco coughed.

     Aloise finished her tepid tea in the silence that followed.

     “Yeah, alright,” Fisco muttered, eventually. He was looking vaguely into the forest behind her once more.

     Aloise sighed, shaking her head.

     “I’m not going to ask you to trust me, because you won’t,” Aloise told him. Fisco shrugged in agreement, so Aloise went on. “But I’ve been willing to give you the benefit of my doubt, so maybe you could do the same for me.”

     Fisco hummed noncommittally, fiddling with the lapel of his coat.

     “Look, I can’t have people saying things about me that I don’t approve of,” he grumbled, putting both of his hands firmly on his knees. “So, I’ll ask again — what kind of stories?”

     Aloise snorted, but at least he was asking without a tone this time. And they were going to have to talk about it eventually.

     “Mostly just ghost stories,” Aloise murmured, setting her tea on the grass in front of her and staring at it. Then, she took a deep breath. “And that’s the thing, I guess. No one knows who you are, really.” She waved her hand uselessly in the air, unsure how to explain herself.

     Fisco raised a single eyebrow, unimpressed.

     Aloise tried again. “It’s like, everything you do falls under shadows. People talk about you in whispers. They call you a killer, a thief, a liar, a cheat—”

     “Hey!” Fisco snapped, pointing at Aloise. “I’m no cheat.”

     She did not know how to respond to that. Slowly, she reached for her pouch of coins, and removed a few.

     “So you’re a liar?” she asked after a brief silence, handing Fisco a coin. Fisco took it, shrugging, with the ghost of a smirk on his lips.

     “Everyone’s a liar, Hartley.”

     “And a thief?” Another coin.

     “Not me, specifically. I usually outsource that sort of thing.”

     “...And a killer?”

     She handed him the coin, between her forefinger and thumb, but she held it tight as he tried to take it. His eyes snapped to glare at her, and she met his cold, gray gaze. There was no remorse, shame, or uncertainty in them — just a sort of bored, smoldering irritation.

     “Yeah.” He tugged the coin pointedly from her fingers, and pocketed it. They did not break eye contact.

     She wondered, briefly, what he was looking at in her. What he was seeing. Because what Aloise saw in front of her was a cold, ancient man with hidden depths in his eyes and shadows in the folds of his coat.

     But she was unafraid.

     Aloise picked up the coin pouch and handed it over to him. She spoke again as soon as the weight left her hands.

     “Did you try to have a scarred woman named Beryl killed?” she asked as Fisco pocketed the pouch.

     They broke eye contact momentarily, and suddenly, Fisco was just another person. No depths or shadows. Just a tired man with an expensive coat.

     Fisco sighed.

     “Who?”

 

II. Answers


 

     Beryl sat atop a low stool behind the long, sturdy worktable in Aloise’s loft. Daylight from the window behind her cast long, angled shadows across the workshop’s myriad contents. Aloise’s space was somehow cluttered and organized at the same time. The walls were lined with rows upon rows of long shelves that sagged under the weight of their menagerie of books, artifacts, and other magical odds and ends. A scroll rack in one corner was filled almost to bursting with rolled parchments, each with a neatly-labeled tag dangling from its spindle. The worktable itself was piled with weathered journals, faded maps, and partially assembled or disassembled instruments. The room smelled faintly of peat and indigo ink and mineral oil.

     It reminded Beryl of the workroom she’d once had in her potion shop. It was strange to think of that place, the little store that had once been her home. During the years she had lived there, scratching a thin living as she plied her secondary trade, the walls of that shop had, for all real intents and purposes, constituted the outer limits of her world.

     That seemed like a long, long time ago, she realized with a start. Things had changed since then. Her world had grown infinitely larger, and infinitely more complicated as well.

     Halfheartedly, she turned the page of an ancient history book which Aloise had recommended to her as a suitable diversion. It really was a remarkable book, filled with lyrical poetry about Cuombajj witches and their ritual hexes. On another day, Beryl would have lost herself deep within the text, turning each word, line, and stanza over in her mind as she tried to parse history from legend. But on that particular day, as she waited for Aloise to return, she found it difficult to concentrate. The words seemed to swim before her eyes, and she found herself reading and re-reading the same few paragraphs without ever really registering their contents.

     Outside the window, the sun was just beginning to sink. Aloise would be back before dusk; she always was. The question was whether she would return alone, as she had for the last dozen days running, or whether this time she would bring him with her.

     As Beryl went through the motions of reading, she idly traced a finger up and down the fresh scar which ran the length of her left forearm. The thin, white line started just above where her thumb met her wrist and climbed nearly all the way to the point of her elbow. Beryl couldn’t actually remember receiving the wound which had caused it. The one-horned minotaur had been holding his knife beneath her chin when her first pyrokinectic blast had gone off, and she figured that the most likely explanation was that his blade had raked her arm as he’d been blown backwards.

     Anyway, whatever had happened and whenever it had happened, she hadn’t felt a thing in the moment, and it was only after she had ‘walked away from the scene of her ambush that she’d looked down at herself and been startled to find that she was covered in her own blood. Mercifully, when Aloise had helped her to get out of her ruined clothes and to check herself over for injuries, the cut along Beryl’s arm was the only new mark they had found, and it had already scarred cleanly over, although Beryl had no more conscious recollection of having healed the wound than she had of receiving it in the first place.

     Running her finger along the raised path of the scar, Beryl felt a pang of sadness radiate up from somewhere deep inside. She had enough scars already; they more or less told the story of her life.

     Aloise had been kinder to her than she’d had any right to expect, having shown up as she did – uninvited, unannounced, and bloodied. Beryl hated the thought that she was putting the blonde mage out, but Aloise wouldn’t hear a word of it. She’d given Beryl fresh clothes, had insisted on sleeping in a bedroll while Beryl took her bed, and had served her scarred visitor countless revivifying cups of Lys’s tea as Beryl had filled her in on events which had transpired since their last encounter.

     Beryl had told Aloise about her life before she’d ascended, and about the strange series of events which had led her to pierce the veil. She’d told her about finding herself and discovering acceptance atop a bed of burning coals. She’d told her about her return home and her meeting with Astria. And she’d told her about Astria’s commission and the search for Fisco Vane, which of course was what had led to her unexpected arrival on Aloise’s doorstep. All the while, Aloise had listened patiently, asked the occasional friendly question, and offered plate after plate of tea cakes and biscuits.

     Then, finally, when Beryl’s tale-telling had caught up with the present, it was Aloise who had volunteered to summon Fisco Vane.

     “You don’t have to do that,” Beryl had said. “You don’t have to do anything. If anything, you’ve already done too much for me. I won’t ask you to put yourself in danger for my sake.”

     Aloise had put her hand atop Beryl’s and smiled. “Don’t talk nonsense,” she’d said. “If I can help you, I’m going to do it — it’s as simple as that. I’m not scared of Fisco, and we’re going to find out what’s going on. Besides, from what you’ve told me, you’re not the only one who has some questions that they want to ask Fisco Vane.”

     So, on each day of the past week, Aloise had set off in the morning with Fisco’s coin in her pocket, while Beryl had waited behind to see if the Shark himself would answer the blonde’s summons. But, so far, when the downstairs door opened each evening and Beryl stepped out onto the loft’s railed landing, she had looked down to see Aloise entering the house alone, and Beryl was starting to wonder whether the man she had been looking for was ever going to turn up.

     She was actually closing the cover on the history of witches, and thinking about what she would do if Fisco never appeared, when she heard a kind of popping noise reverberate from just outside the workshop door, and a pair of voices suddenly conversing from out on the landing. Before Beryl could stand up, the door swung open, and Aloise stepped through into the room, her cheeks slightly flushed.

     “Oh, just come in,” Aloise was saying to the person behind her in the hallway. “I can’t see why you’re making such a big fuss about this.”

     “Yeah, well, it’s not that I don’t like to meet new people, Hartley, but I do prefer to arrange the introductions myself,” said a low, rasping voice from outside the door. A few puffs of light, grayish smoke billowed into the room through the open doorway, followed a few seconds later by the cigar which had birthed them and the man who held it clenched between his teeth.

     The man was shorter than Beryl had been expecting, and slightly older-looking, too. He had slicked-back hair, and his ears seemed a little too large for his head. But the eyes which stared out from his lined face were sharp. The word which jumped to Beryl’s mind was “predatory.”

     Just as Beryl was studying the new arrival, she could see that the man was evaluating her as well. He looked her up and down, and although his overall assessment was fast, the man’s eyes lingered on Beryl’s eye for an uncomfortable second, and she was left with the unmistakable impression that he was committing her face to memory.

     The man held her gaze just long enough for the air in the room to start to feel charged, before he made a dismissive little grunt and turned back to face Aloise.

     “Nope,” the man said, taking another puff from his cigar. “Don’t know her, never laid eyes on her before.” He turned to Beryl for a second, and said, “Sorry, doll, no offense intended,” before turning back to face Aloise again, and saying, “Plus, if I’d have met her, I’d remember it, and you can be sure of that. Naw, if I tried to kill her, then nobody’s more surprised about it than me.”

     From her position near the door, Aloise shot Beryl an apologetic look. “Fisco, this is Beryl,” she said to the man with the cigar. “Beryl, this is Fisco Vane.”

     “Charmed, I’m sure,” Fisco said. He walked past the worktable behind which Beryl sat and moved to stand next to the only chair in the room: a carved, wooden, high-backed seat which looked a little like a throne. The wood had a dark, antique patina, and the chair’s arms and legs had been carved in the shape of coiling sea serpents. Fisco looked at the piece of ancient furniture with an expression of bemused skepticism.

     “I’d ask you where you dug this up,” he said to Aloise without turning back around to face her. “Except, knowing you, that would be a literal question, and I’m not sure I’d want to hear the answer.”

     After another moment spent examining the antique chair, he appeared to make up his mind, because he sat heavily down into it, his arms resting atop the carved serpents as he cocked his head slightly to one side and turned to look at Beryl.

     “Now,” Fisco said, taking his cigar out of his mouth and holding it with its glowing tip pointed towards the scarred woman, “I hear you’ve been telling tales out of turn about me. Believe it or not, I do have a reputation to maintain, and if you’re going to be spreading accusations, particularly in front of impressionable people such as young Hartley, here,” he said, nodding his head back in Aloise’s direction, “then I think I have a right to know who you are, and why you’re looking to be involved in my affairs.” The cigar returned to Fisco’s mouth, and he leaned back in the chair, and waited for Beryl to speak.

     Beryl turned to Aloise, and tried to give her a look which somehow expressed both sincere thanks and sympathetic solidarity. “How much did you tell him?” she asked.

     “Not bloody much,” Fisco rumbled from his seat over against the far wall.

     Aloise nodded. “Just the barest details. I thought you would want to speak for yourself,” she said.

     “She asked me if I tried to have you killed,” Fisco said to Beryl.

     “Did you?” Beryl asked.

     “Not that I’m aware of,” Fisco said. “Why do you think I did?”

     “Because I’ve been across a score of worlds looking for you, and, on the last world I went to, some men attacked me and tried to kill me. And, from what I’ve been able to learn about you, it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to imagine that you’re the man who sent them.”

     Fisco gave a low, short chuckle. “So let’s start there, then, shall we?” he said. “What exactly did you learn about me, when you were gallivanting across the eternities and asking total strangers to point you in the direction of one Fisco Vane?”

     “What did I learn?” Beryl said. “Nothing, and everything. Half of the people I talked to jumped at the mention of your name. Hardly anybody seems to want to talk about you, but what they won’t say speaks volumes in and of itself. Nobody knows you, but everyone knows about you. You’re like a shadow which hangs over half of the shady dealings across the multiverse. Something sinister happens, and nobody’s sure how or why? Maybe Old Smokey did it.” Beryl frowned. “You’re practically a living ghost story. I even found a whole plane where people talk about you like you’re death incarnate.”

     Fisco sighed. “And, let me guess: that’s where you were when you got jumped?”

     Beryl nodded. “I finally thought I was onto something. I’d been asking around for a few days and getting nowhere when a human woman pulled me aside and put me in touch with a human man with a glass eye, who directed me to a lizardman in the next town over, who told me that he could arrange a meeting with you, for the right price, of course. I agreed to meet with him again later to discuss details, but when I showed up at the scheduled place and time, he wasn’t alone. He was there with a one-horned minotaur, and at least three or four other men, and they were not in a particularly talkative mood. They backed me into a corner, put a blade to my throat, and asked me why I was trying to find Fisco Vane.”

     The image of that isolated alleyway and what had happened in it came flooding back into Beryl’s memory, and she shuddered a little bit at the thought of it.

     Fisco chuckled again. “You must not have been around much, doll, to fall for a setup like that.”

     Beryl’s cheeks reddened a bit. “Either that,” she said, “or I knew I could take care of myself.”

     Fisco nodded his head ever so slightly. “I suppose that’s fair enough, given that you’re here now and they aren’t.” His face turned thoughtful for a second as he puffed away on his cigar. “I don’t suppose you can tell me anything else about them, these men who attacked you?”

     Beryl shook her head.

     “And I’m guessing it’s too late for me to try to have a word with them, if I wanted to?”

     Beryl was quiet for a second. She looked up at the ceiling.

     “They won’t be answering any questions,” she said.

     Aloise moved away from the door, where she’d been standing this whole time, and walked back around behind the table to rest a hand on Beryl’s shoulder. Beryl felt immediately grateful for the gesture of support, whereas it seemed to amuse Fisco more than anything else.

     “Let me give you some free advice,” he said, “and Hartley, here, can tell you that’s a rare enough thing, so I’d suggest you listen.” He leaned forward in the chair as he spoke. “The next time you go looking for someone like me — if there is a next time — then a little discretion is in order. See, a man in my business can accumulate his share of enemies, and those enemies can be just as dangerous as the man himself.” Fisco paused. “Well, maybe not just as dangerous, but plenty dangerous still. See, I didn’t send anyone after you. But you aren’t the only person looking for me, and I think it’s safe to say that you attracted someone’s attention when you were throwing my name around from plane to plane. Someone who wanted to use you to get to me. Any idea who that might have been?”

     Beryl shook her head again. “I take it you have a lot of enemies, then?”

     Fisco shrugged. “It’s unavoidable, for a man in my line of work. Unscrupulous competitors, for one. And, despite my deeply-felt commitment to customer satisfaction, not all transactions are concluded with both parties feeling similarly pleased about the deal they’ve made. Misunderstandings have been known to occur.”

     “I suppose I believe you,” Beryl said after a moment.

     “Believe whatever you like,” Fisco said. “Doesn’t affect me one way or the other.”

     Beryl watched as Fisco put a hand up to his face and rubbed at his eyes. The lines of his brow seemed to deepen as he did, and for the first time she noticed the dark circles beneath his eyes. His skin there was a kind of deep, bluish-black — almost purple, even, like smoke stains.

     He looked tired, Beryl thought. Bone tired.

     “What I still don’t understand,” Fisco said, his hand falling back down to his side, “is why you were skipping across worlds and sticking your neck out in the first place with my name on your lips.”

     “I was trying to help my sister,” Beryl said. “The people you’re working for are trying to kill my sister.”

     “Now, hold up there,” Fisco said. His back straightened, and his voice came as a kind of a gravelly rumble. “First off, I don’t work for anybody. The only person I work for is me.” He stuck a thumb into his own chest for emphasis. “Second thing, just a minute ago I was trying to kill you, and now I’m trying to kill your sister, too?” He pointed a finger back at Beryl. “Before I hear that I’ve got some sort of vendetta against your whole extended family, maybe you ought to actually tell me just who it is that’s after you and yours, and just why it is you think that I’m involved with any of this business.”

     “House Dentevi,” Beryl said. “My sister, Astria, told me that you’re working for — sorry, working with — House Dentevi.”

     Fisco frowned. “That a place?” he asked.

     Beryl shook her head. “It’s a family. One of the seven Great Houses of Aliavelli.”

     “I take it then that Aliavelli is a place?”

     “It’s my home,” Beryl said, surprised at how strange those words sounded to her.

     “Aliavelli,” Fisco said. He repeated the name, slowly, sounding out the syllables. A kind of distant look passed over his face, and his eyes turned upward ever so slightly, as though he were grasping for a memory which was just out of reach. Then, suddenly, he snapped his fingers. He looked back down at Beryl, and she caught a glimpse of his teeth as he spoke.

     “Marble buildings?” Fisco said. “Gold mosaics? Big fountains? A lot of rich folks, all of them knobs?”

     Beryl sighed. “That’s it,” she said.

     “Aliavelli? Never can seem to remember the name of that place.” Fisco’s head shook slightly. “Now there’s a real nest of vipers. If I were you, I’d ‘walk away from that scene and not look back.”

     “It’s more complicated than that,” Beryl said. She was quiet for a moment, then she frowned as she spoke. “And if that’s how you feel about my home, then why did you go there in the first place?”

     Fisco chuckled. “I liked the décor,” he said.

     This time it was Beryl who looked confused. “Ornate?”

     “Expensive.”

     “I didn’t have you figured as a fan of architecture,” Beryl said.

     “I like places that have lots of rich people, and lots of ambitious people,” Fisco said. “And your Aliavelli has plenty of both. Where there are rich, ambitious people, there are usually good business opportunities for someone with my unique talents.”

     “And what talents are those?” Beryl asked.

     “I help people with problems,” Fisco said.

     “Out of the goodness of your heart?”

     Fisco blinked, twice, and he almost smiled. “Out of the loneliness of my wallet,” he said. “Hartley didn’t tell you much about me, either, did she?”

     “Just like I said I would let Beryl speak for herself,” Aloise said, “I thought I would afford you the same courtesy.”

     “That’s one of the things I like most about you,” Fisco said, winking at Aloise. “Your sense of even-handedness.”

     “I’ll take that as a complement, regardless of how you meant it,” Aloise said. “But I’m not the one you’re here to talk to.” She gave Beryl’s shoulder a small pat, then stepped back to lean against the wall.

     “So the Dentevis engaged you to help them with their… problems?” Beryl asked. That final, euphemistic word tasted bitter on her tongue.

     “Oh, I presented myself discreetly to several of your, what did you call them? Great Houses? I gave them all my standard introductory pitch and explained my full menu of services. Your friends in House Dentevi were just the first ones to sign on the dotted line.”

     “And what did they want?”

     “They were particularly interested in my range of obedience aids.”

     Beryl raised an eyebrow.

     “That’s what I prefer to call them, anyway,” Fisco said. “Other people have nasty names for them. Thrall collars, mindslavers, things like that.”

     Beryl’s eye widened a little bit. The expression on her face changed to one of disgust, which she did not attempt to hide. “So you’re a slaver,” she said.

     “No, I’m a supplier.”

     “And I’m supposed to believe that you don’t approve of what the people you supply do with the things you supply to them?”

     Fisco shrugged. “I don’t approve of winter, but it still snows every year. My feelings don’t enter into it.”

     “That must be convenient.”

     “It is,” Fisco said.

     Beryl had to look away for a second. Fisco’s face had assumed a decidedly smug appearance, and she was afraid that if she looked straight at him, her emotions would run away with her, and she would say something that she didn’t mean to say, or — worse — do something which she didn’t mean to do.

     Which, she suspected, was probably just what the clever little man seated before her wanted. Beryl found herself wondering whether he said the things he did mainly to provoke her, or whether he really meant them, too. Probably both, she decided.

     But that was neither here nor there. She closed her eye for a second and tried to take stock of how she was feeling: anxious, upset, provoked, even a little scared, too. But that was okay. She was aware of her feelings, and by being aware of them, she could accept them rather than being mastered by them. She gave herself a moment to refocus, to direct her thoughts away from jousting with Fisco Vane — which could do her no good, regardless of outcome — and towards the reason she was there in the first place.

     Beryl opened her eye again and looked back up at Fisco, who returned the eye contact with a slight look of amusement.

     “So, the Dentevis wanted to buy these… devices from you?” she asked. Again, the euphemism tasted foul in her mouth.

     “A full two dozen of them, which I agreed to source — in exchange for a suitable fee, of course. Quality like that doesn’t come cheap. Hard to design, expensive to make — especially for a custom order like these. Myself, I prefer the simplicity of a heavy iron collar, but your lot wanted something a little subtler, a little more in keeping with the local aesthetic. An accessory for all occasions, if you will.” Fisco traced a line through the air around his neck. “Dress it up with a frilly gown, dress it down with a simple robe.”

     Beryl felt a chill run down her spine. “So they can be worn in public, and no one will know what they are.”

     Fisco’s eyes flashed, and again the word “predatory” came unbidden to Beryl’s mind.

     “You’ve got a head on your shoulders, I’ll give you that,” Fisco said. He took another long puff on his cigar, held the air in his lungs for a second, then exhaled the fragrant smoke, which curled up towards the ceiling. “I didn’t ask, and I don’t particularly care to know. But that’s the conclusion I’d have come to, were I an interested party.”

     Beryl’s mind raced as she tried to think of what the Dentevis might do if they could surreptitiously subvert the minds of twenty or so of the most powerful people on Aliavelli. But it didn’t take that much imagination to see who one of those people might be, and what the consequences would be — not just for Astria, and not just for Beryl herself, but for a whole plane of people caught up in a centuries-old game of power politics in which the rules of engagement were about to change. No matter how clever Fisco’s devices were, so bold a move by the Dentevis would not remain covert forever. And, when it was discovered, retaliation would follow, and the spiral of violence would begin. Houses would fall, people would die — and not just among the named elite. If the aristocrats bled each other dry, even the nameless would be pulled under by the red tide.

     In Beryl’s imagination, she could almost hear the screams. That was more than enough to make up her mind.

     “You have to call off the deal,” she said to Fisco, her voice louder and more resolute. “You can’t deliver those collars.”

     Fisco shook his head. “Sorry, doll, but a deal’s a deal. What I promise, I deliver. I’m not a cheat.” He shot a glance over at Aloise as he said that final sentence.

     “So there is honor among thieves after all?” Aloise asked.

     Fisco made a show of looking wounded. “I’m not a thief, I’m a businessman,” he said. “And I’m a man of my word. Backing out on a deal’s bad for my reputation, and it’s bad for business.” He turned back to Beryl. “Besides, I’m out of pocket on this deal right now, and I intend to collect the remainder of what I’m owed. I like gold, and I don’t leave debts unsettled. That’s also bad for business.”

     “If it’s gold you’re after,” Beryl said, with some urgency creeping into her voice, “then we can work out a different deal. My sister has more than enough gold. She’ll pay you whatever the Dentevis still owe you, plus something more for your trouble. You can even keep your collars, sell them again someplace else. You’ll come out ahead.”

     Again, Fisco shook his head. “I like your hustle, but like I said, a deal’s a deal.”

     “There must be some price at which a deal isn’t a deal. Astria will pay it. I’ll convince her.”

     At the mention of Astria’s name, Beryl saw a little twinkle of recognition creep into Fisco’s eyes, and she felt a lump start to form in the pit of her stomach.

     “Your sister, what did you say her name was again?” Fisco said.

     “Astria,” Beryl said. “Astria Trevanei.”

     The faint ghost of a grin formed on Fisco’s face. “Tall, a real looker, some big muckety-muck even among your important types? Sharp tongue and a quick temper, although she hides the latter much better than the former?”

     Beryl didn’t say anything. Fisco correctly interpreted her silence as confirmation.

     “And she sent you across the planes with a lot of dangerous questions in your pocket, so that you could report back to her about what mean old Fisco Vane was up to?”

     Again, Beryl found herself unable to speak. This time, she managed a nod.

     Fisco’s grin redoubled. He leaned as far forward as his seat would permit, and when he spoke again, the relish in his gruff voice was palpable. “Remember how I told you that I made the same offer to plenty of your Great House types? Well, your sister was one of them, and she was plenty interested in what I was selling. She just didn’t want to match your House Dentevi on price. Said that what I was asking was far too much, made me a counteroffer that was downright insulting. But then I’m guessing that she neglected to mention all this to you, am I right?”

     “Yes,” Beryl said. The word hung in the air in front of her, lame and lifeless.

     Fisco leaned back again and tapped the ashes off the end of his cigar. “You’ll forgive me, then, if I’m skeptical about your chances of convincing your sister to pay up. I suspect that, when she put you on my tail, she was rather hoping that she’d stumbled across a cheaper way to get what she wanted.”

     Beryl’s head sank into her hands. Speaking through her fingers, she said, “Astria usually gets what she wants.” Her voice was so low as to be almost inaudible.

     She expected a triumphal reaction of some sort from Fisco, but instead the older man just gave a tired-sounding sigh. “Yeah, well, we can’t always get what we want,” he said. “And, in this case, your sister is just going to have to cope with disappointment.” With that, he stood up from the carved chair, straightened the cuffs on his expensive-looking jacket, and brushed a speck of cigar ash from one of his sleeves. “Now, unless you both have some other business with me, I’ll be taking my leave.” And he turned to move towards the door.

     Aloise took a step in his direction, as if to try to stop him. “You can’t just leave,” she said.

     “Of course I can,” Fisco said. “I’m here as a personal favor to you, Hartley, because in spite of my better judgment I find myself liking you. But there are limits to my interest, and you’ve already had plenty of my valuable time. Furthermore, as much as I sympathize with your friend over there, and her complicated family dynamics,” he said, motioning with his cigar at Beryl, “I’ll tell you the same thing that I told her: a deal’s a deal. I don’t go back on my word.”

     “You have to do something,” Aloise said. “You can’t just start a fire like this and walk away from it. Not even you would do that. I know it.”

     “Then you don’t know me as well as you think you do,” Fisco said. But he stopped walking and turned to face the blonde mage. “If you’ve got suggestions, I’m willing to listen. But so far all I’m hearing is a lot about what I can’t do, and won’t do, and nothing about what’s in it for me. It’s just the same old song, and it’s getting tiresome.”

     “What if you just told me where it was going to happen?”

     Both Fisco and Aloise turned to look at Beryl, who was on her feet now. Traces of a tear were visible beneath her good, green eye, but she stood straight, and her voice sounded calm.

     “What’s that?” Fisco said.

     “What if you didn’t have to go back on the deal? What if you went ahead and delivered the collars, and got the money you were owed?” Beryl said. “But what if I just happened to be there when the exchange took place, and I made sure that the Dentevis didn’t hold on to their new toys? You’d still get your money, and you’d still be a man of your word, but I’d be able to stop things from tumbling even further out of control than they already have.”

     Fisco was quiet for a moment. He puffed away at his cigar. Then he nodded ever so slightly.

     “I’m starting to like this friend of yours as well, in spite of my better judgment,” he said to Aloise. “I like the way she thinks; she’s more devious than she lets on. You ought to pay attention to her — you might learn a thing or two.”

     “Beryl’s not being devious,” Aloise said. “She’s trying to get you to do the right thing, in spite of your better judgment.”

     Fisco harrumphed. “Dress it up however you like,” he said to Aloise. Then, turning back to Beryl, he said: “Assuming I agreed to go along with this ruse of yours, what’s in it for me?”

     Beryl appeared confused by the question. “You’d get your money,” she said. “It’s no different than if you did nothing.”

     “Yeah, but I’m not doing nothing, am I?” Fisco said. “I’m doing you an extra favor. And, for that, I expect a little extra inducement for myself. Say,” he shrugged his shoulders, “an extra ten percent. Call it a convenience charge, if you like.”

     “I can’t pay you,” Beryl said. “I don’t have any gold.”

     Fisco frowned. “I thought you said your sister was rolling in it?”

     “She is. I’m not.”

     Fisco rubbed his forehead. “Why don’t people ever have the decency to mention that up front? Somehow the fact that they’re skint never comes up until you’re talking terms.”

     “There must be something you value besides money,” Beryl said.

     “Don’t presume.” Fisco looked hard at Beryl for a moment, looked her hard in her one good eye, and she again felt the clear and distinct sense that she was being measured and evaluated. Finally, he said: “What else would you offer me, then?”

     Beryl had to think for a moment before answering.

     What she did next made her uncomfortable — profoundly uncomfortable. But it was the only thing she could think of to do, and doing nothing was not an option.

     “A favor,” she said. “A favor for a favor, simple as that. If you do this for me, then I will do something for you at some point in the future.”

     Fisco grunted a little bit. He seemed to take a moment to consider what she had said.

     “A favor?”

     “Yes.”

     “Simple as that?”

     “Yes.”

     “Anything I ask for?”

     “Anything.”

     “No strings attached?”

     “None.”

     Beryl could see Fisco turning the possibilities over in his mind.

     “And what sort of assurance do I have that you’ll come through for me when I call in this favor?”

     “You have my word,” Beryl said.

     Fisco harrumphed and chewed the end of his cigar. “That’s not much,” he said.

     “You’re a man of your word,” Beryl said. “You said so yourself.” She walked around the edge of the table and took a few steps towards Fisco, so that she stood in front of him at roughly arm’s length. “Well, I’m a woman of my word, too. My word is the only thing of value I have. I’m offering it to you. You can trust me.”

     “I’m not a big believer in trust,” Fisco said.

     Beryl remembered hearing similar words from someone else not too long ago, and the memory gave her a little shudder. But she shook it off.

     “Maybe not,” she said. “But try to look at it this way. You said you already have a lot of enemies. Well, you can leave here today with me as your enemy, or you can leave here today with me in your debt. It’s your choice.”

     Fisco’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t like being threatened,” he said.

     “I’m not threatening you,” Beryl said. “I’m just trying to point out that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

     The room was silent for a moment. Then the short man with the cigar seemed to relax a little bit. Beryl again found her gaze drawn to the dark circles beneath his eyes, and the look of tired resignation which they seemed to give him.

     Fisco turned to Aloise. “I’m sure that you’ll tell me that I can trust her,” he half-said, half-grumbled.

     Aloise nodded. “I do,” she said. “I think you should, too.”

     Fisco shook his head. “Trusting the wrong person is going to get you in trouble one of these days, Hartley,” he said.

     But, after another moment passed in silence, Fisco extended a hand out towards Beryl.

     “A favor for a favor,” he said.

     Beryl took his hand and shook it. His skin was strangely cold.

     “A favor for a favor,” she said.

     Fisco took his hand back and used it to hold his cigar as he looked the scarred woman up and down a final time, before giving his head a quick nod.

     “Don’t make me regret this,” he said. “If I regret it, so will you.”

     “That’s not going to be a problem,” Beryl said.

     “You get a place, and a time,” Fisco said. “That’s it.”

     “I didn’t expect anything else.”

     “Good. One of my agents will be in touch with you with the details. In the meantime,” he said, “try a little harder to keep a low profile? You owe me, and I intend to collect, which I can’t do if you go and get yourself killed.”

     “I’ll do my best,” Beryl said. “Luckily for you, I’m difficult to kill.”

     “Glad to hear it,” Fisco said. He turned back towards Aloise.

     “Thank you,” the blonde mage said.

     “Maybe now you won’t believe just anything you hear about me,” Fisco said. He returned his cigar to his mouth. “Although, remember how you asked me before if I was a killer?”

     Aloise nodded.

     A grin crept across Fisco’s face. “Well, you’d better watch out for your friend, there,” he said, nodding towards Beryl. “Because she’s a killer, too.”

     “I don’t label my friends, Fisco,” Aloise said. “People are more than just the sum of their actions. You of all people ought to appreciate that.”

     Fisco just grunted in response. Then he stepped out through the door and was suddenly engulfed by a dense cloud of thick, black smoke. When the air cleared, Fisco Vane was gone.

 

III. Friends

 

     Aloise walked over to the door and closed it, more from habit than anything else. When she turned back around, she saw that Beryl was leaning forward slightly, and seemed to be wobbling a little bit. Aloise took a few quick steps over to where the black-haired woman stood and put an arm around her shoulder. She felt Beryl’s weight collapse down onto her, but the weight in question wasn’t much, and Aloise was able to hold Beryl more or less upright and help her over towards the chair which Fisco’s departure had left vacant. Beryl slumped down into the chair, leaned her head back, and closed her eye.

     “Take a deep breath,” Aloise said. “It’s okay.”

     With her eye still closed, Beryl nodded. She had done her best to maintain her composure while Fisco had been in the room, to roll with his various rhetorical punches as they came. But some of the blows had landed, and the truth about Astria had hit particularly hard. She had held herself together in the shadowy man’s presence, well enough to do what she needed to do, at least. But when she had seen him vanish behind his wall of smoke, her own walls had come down, and her emotions had come flooding out.

     She tried to focus on awareness and acceptance, but it was difficult. Some things were hard to accept.

     “Take a deep breath,” Aloise said again.

     Beryl nodded. Slowly, she managed to find her breath, and her head felt a little bit clearer. Eventually, she opened her eye, and saw Aloise’s concerned face looking down at her.

     “What did I just agree to?” Beryl said. She took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. “What did I just do?”

     “The only thing you could do,” Aloise said. “I don’t like it, either, but you didn’t really have much of a choice.”

     “Those things he was talking about, I can’t just let them find their way into my home. It’s not just about me or Astria anymore. The Houses are trying to start a war. And I have to try and stop it.”

     Aloise nodded. “You did the right thing,” she said.

     Beryl shook her head. “I wish I felt as sure as you did.”

     “I meant what I said to Fisco,” the blonde said. “I trust you. You should trust yourself as well.”

     Beryl sighed. “I trusted my instincts,” she said, “back when this all began, and my instincts told me that I could help Astria, that she could be saved.” Beryl rubbed away a tear which had formed in her eye. “They told me that she was worth saving. I’ve never had any illusions about her. I know what she’s like, better than anyone else. She’s cold, and she calculates, and she lies. I don’t think she even means to do it. I think it’s like a reflex. She just assumes that everyone else is the same as her, and so she lies to them. She’s always looking to protect herself, to find her next angle.” She shook her head. “But I thought this time was different. That maybe, just maybe, I could reach her, and we could be a family. But any time I feel like I’ve scrubbed away one layer of deceit, it turns out there’s another one hiding just beneath it.”

     “She doesn’t deserve you,” Aloise said. “Not until she’s willing to be honest with you. You don’t owe her anything.”

     Beryl nodded. “I know,” she said. “But she’s all I have left.”

     “That’s not true, and you know it,” Aloise said. She gave the scarred woman’s shoulder a poke. “I swear, in your own way, you can be just as obstinate as Fisco sometimes.”

     Beryl looked up. “There’s no way I can ever repay you. Not for this, not for what you’ve done for me already.”

     “You’re my friend,” Aloise said. “You don’t have to repay me. This is what friends do for each other.”

     Beryl gave Aloise a rueful smile. “I don’t actually have a lot of experience with friendship,” she said. “You’re going to have to be patient with me. I’m still learning how this all works.”

     Aloise laughed. “You’ll figure it out,” she said. “You’re a quick study.”

     “Aloise, if there’s ever anything I can do for you — anything, ever — all you have to do is ask, and I’ll be there. Doesn’t matter what, doesn’t matter where.” Beryl straightened herself up as she wiped away the last of her tears. “It’s the absolute least I can do, and you have to accept it, or else I really won’t be able to live with myself, friends or not. So please just say ‘okay,’ okay?”

     The younger mage smiled. “Okay,” she said.

     A look of relief swept across Beryl’s face. Looking down, her eyes came to rest on the small pile of ashes which now littered the floor at the base of the chair.

     “You shouldn’t let him talk to you like that,” she said, gesturing down towards the cigar ash.

     “That’s just his way,” Aloise said. She picked up a cleaning rag from atop the worktable and scooped-up the little ash pile. “I’m not sure he even means to do it. It’s like a reflex for him. He probes and provokes the way other people scratch their noses.”

     “So then why do you put up with him? Why go looking for him? Why not just tell him to take a flying leap?”

     Aloise shook out the rag into a nearby dustbin. “Because he’s seen more in his life than either of us have in ours, and he has things to teach, even if he charges for his thoughts and they come laced with enough sarcasm to choke a wumpus.” She sat down atop the stool which Beryl had earlier been perched on. She looked thoughtful. “And, because, in his own way, I think he needs my help, too. He’ll never admit it, and he may not even realize it, but he’s lost. He’s lost in a darkness of his own making, and instead of trying to find his way out, he just tries to pull the people he meets down into it with him. You were lost once, when I met you,” she said, looking at Beryl. “Well, I need to help him now for the same reason I helped you then: I don’t see the darkness. I try to see the people beneath it.”

     Beryl regarded Aloise with something bordering on amazement. Then, after a second, she stood up from the chair and walked over to where the younger woman sat. Beryl put her hands on Aloise’s shoulders, and knelt down ever so slightly in order to bring her face level with the blonde’s.

     “Aloise,” she said, “you’re the most genuinely good person I’ve ever known. I wish I had a better-sounding word for it, something fancy or poetic. Something that sounded smarter than ‘good.’ But I don’t, so ‘good’ is just going to have to do. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

     Aloise nodded.

     “Good, because there are people out there who won’t understand. People like Fisco Vane, people like my sister. They’re going to try to turn that goodness against you. They’re going to try to convince you that you’re simple, or naïve. That your goodness is a weakness. That it’s something you have to fight against, or to hide away, or to run away from. They will try to twist you around, to get you to doubt the things about yourself which you know to be true.” Beryl gave Aloise’s shoulders a quick squeeze. “Don’t let them. You’re not naïve. They’re jaded. And your goodness isn’t a weakness. It’s your greatest power. Please know that about yourself, and don’t let anyone else make you forget it.”

     Aloise was silent. She seemed surprised by the intensity of Beryl’s outpouring, and for a moment Beryl was worried that she had overstepped a bound.

     Finally, the blonde woman smiled. “Thank you,” she said. The two women shared a short hug. “But you have to try to do the same thing, okay? You have to believe in your own goodness as well.”

     Beryl nodded. Then she went over to a corner shelf where her battered oilskin pack was waiting. She picked it up and slung it over one shoulder.

     “I will,” she said. “But for now I have to get going. I have a lot that I need to do, and not a lot of time to do it in.”

     “Are you going back home?” Aloise asked.

     Beryl nodded.

     “I could go with you,” Aloise said. “I could help you out.”

     Beryl smiled a thin smile, but she shook her head. “I’ve already imposed on you enough,” she said. “And besides, while Fisco is wrong about pretty much everything, he was right about one thing. I’m a killer, Aloise. Whatever else I may be, I’m also a killer. And where I’m about to go, and what I’m about to do, there’s a good chance that people are going to get killed, and that I’m going to kill them. I’m going to try not to do it — Gods know, I’m going to try. But that’s what I always try to do, and people end up dead anyways. You’re one of only two people who have ever shown me real kindness in my life, and the other one died because she was too close to me at the wrong time. I never meant to hurt her, but it happened anyway. I’m not going to let that happen to you. I’m not going to let anyone else die for being kind to me.”

     Aloise started to protest. “Beryl, I’m not afraid of you, or of anyone else,” she said. “I could—”

     But Beryl held up a hand to stop her. “I know you’re not afraid,” she said. “But I’d be afraid for you. And I know that fear can prompt people to do the wrong thing. Someone awfully smart once told me that.”

     That, at least, got a smile from Aloise, even if the blonde still looked like she wanted to argue the point. Before she could say anything, though, Beryl opened her pack and pulled out an old book bound in red leather. The cover bore the markings of its age but had clearly been carefully and lovingly preserved, and the pages were edged with gold leaf, except in those places where the book had been well-thumbed over the centuries.

     “This is my copy of Thineaus’s Arcanum Obscurata,” Beryl said. “It used to belong to my mother, and she used to read the stories to me when I was a child. Thineaus claimed to have travelled the planes, and to have recorded all the wonders and magic he found during his journeys. People don’t pay much attention to Thineaus’s writings these days because they assume that he was more of a myth-maker than a historian. But my mother always said that every myth has a kernel of truth in it, and the trick was learning to pick out the history from the legend.” Beryl walked over to where Aloise stood and handed the book to her. “That seems like the sort of thing which you would enjoy, so I’d like you to have it.”

     Aloise held the book in her hands, feeling its weight.

     “I can’t take this,” she said. “It’s an heirloom.”

     “I already know it by heart,” Beryl said. “I had a very, very long time to memorize it, and very little else to do with myself.” A kind of distant look passed over Beryl’s face like a dark cloud, but it vanished as quickly as it came. “Besides,” she said, “you don’t have to keep it. Just hold onto it for a while, see if it speaks to you. I’ll be back soon enough, and you can tell me what you think.”

     After a quiet second, Aloise nodded, and she wrapped her arms protectively around the book.

     “Be safe, Beryl,” she said.

     “I’ll do my best,” Beryl said.

     “I know you will,” Aloise said. “Oh, and Beryl, the thing I said to Fisco? It applies equally to you. Fisco may think you’re a killer, and you may, too. But I don’t. I don’t label my friends, because you’re more than just the sum of your actions.”

     In spite of everything, Beryl found herself smiling. “I’ll try to remember that,” she said.

     “You’d better,” Aloise said.

     Then the blonde mage gave a small wave goodbye as Beryl closed her eye and left for home.

 

IV. Killers

 

     The angel was standing alone in the center of the narrow, cobblestone street, and she made, Beryl thought, the most otherworldly sight.

     Beryl had never actually seen an angel before, and she wasn’t exactly sure what she had expected them to look like. Wreathed in white silk, maybe, or bathed in a heavenly light. But this angel did not look like that at all. She had the hair for the part — it was the color of spun gold. And her figure — tall and austere — was striking enough, as were the feathered wings folded neatly behind her back. But instead of white silk, she was dressed in black leather armor with steel plating. And her face, rather than glowing with inner light, was cold and impassive. The darkness of the moonless night clung to her like a veil.

     She would have been beautiful, Beryl thought, if she didn’t also look so sad.

     Sadness. That was the word which had jumped to Beryl’s mind when the angel had appeared in the street below, carrying a heavy iron chest in her arms. Beryl had thought of sadness again when the angel had looked up at her, where she was perched on a shadow-shrouded ledge, and offered her only a mute nod by way of acknowledging her presence.

     Sadness seemed to radiate out from the angel in a palpable form, Beryl thought. It hung in the air around her like a miasma, as though it would break your heart from twenty paces away.

     Beryl had wanted to say something to the angel — anything, really, to relieve the terrible sense of sadness which she felt welling-up inside of her. But what was there to say? Besides, she needed to remain hidden and silent until the Dentevis came to pay for their wares.

     Which, after what felt like an eternity of waiting, they finally did. A pair of heavy-set men appeared first, walking side-by-side down the narrow street, their hands positioned conspicuously near to their hips. Although they wore plain, black cloaks as their outermost layers, it was not hard for Beryl to see the outlines of their armor beneath the fabric, nor the points of their scabbards, which extended below the knee-length hems of their coats. Behind them came a second pair of figures, this time a young man and a young woman, both of them in black silk robes. Sorcerers, no doubt, and similarly dressed-down for the occasion, but as they passed, Beryl could not help noting with a smile that the Dentevi family seal was embroidered onto the backs of their robes: a three-pointed crown atop a jeweled bird.

     Even when the Great Houses were trying to act covertly, Beryl thought, pride got the better of discretion. Just like a real jeweled bird, the plumage was always on display.

     Next came a solitary figure, a woman with silver hair and a magisterial bearing in a black and gold gown. Beryl had lived apart from polite society for too long to recognize the woman on sight, but it did not require much supposition to determine that she was one of the lesser Dentevi matriarchs, presumably come to supervise the exchange. She might even have been its architect, for all Beryl knew, but Beryl also knew that it was unlikely that a deal as important as this would be undertaken by one matriarch alone. It would have been a collective decision — motioned, seconded, and carried, with all the proper rules of order observed.

     In such a way was the greatest evil often done, Beryl thought to herself with a shudder. With exacting procedures obeyed, and with all technicalities followed to the letter.

     Finally, standing just behind the regal matriarch, came a third armored man. This one was even larger than the first guards — a veritable mountain of sinew and muscle, his greatsword slung across his back with no effort whatsoever at concealment. And, in his arms, he carried a large wooden box with a massive padlock hanging from its front.

     As the Dentevi procession reached the place where the angel stood waiting, the knights and sorcerers who made up the front two ranks fanned out to each side, allowing the matriarch and her hulking guard to pass through their middle and stand before the silent angel. The swordsmen and spellcasters looked up and down the street, searching for any unexpected presence. But their movements seemed more perfunctory than wary; they did not appear to be expecting trouble.

     “Where is Fisco Vane?” the matriarch asked, her tone imperious bordering on peevish. “I would have expected him to be present himself.”

     Again, Beryl had to suppress an urge to laugh at the slighted matriarch, who seemed baffled that an outsider did not understand the specific customs of the social pecking order that those who lived within the Great Houses had internalized almost before they could walk.

     “My master sends his apologies,” the angel said, in a voice that seemed to reverberate out of proportion to its quietness, “but his presence is required elsewhere. He has entrusted me with the task of concluding your transaction.”

     The angel placed the iron chest she carried on the ground before her, and it seemed to Beryl as though she drew her hands away from it just a bit quickly, as though she didn’t wish to touch it for a second longer than was necessary. The angel took a step backwards, then spoke again.

     “I have been instructed to allow inspection of the merchandise,” she said, “but only after the receipt of the outstanding balance of your payment.”

     An uneasy silence fell over the assembled group, and for a moment Beryl thought that the matriarch was going to object. But instead the silver-haired woman motioned for her guard, who stepped obediently over and held the wooden box out to her. The matriarch extracted a key from within her gown which she used to undo the padlock on the box. The matriarch then motioned towards the angel, and the guard stepped over to where Fisco’s winged messenger stood and handed her the box.

     The angel opened the box’s lid and peered inside, inspecting its contents. Then, apparently satisfied, she eased the lid shut again and held the box out at arm’s length from her body. Her eyes closed, a few whispered words passed between her lips, and the box suddenly vanished wish a purplish flash of light.

     The angel opened her eyes again and looked down at the black-clad group assembled before her.

     “Your business with Mister Vane is now concluded,” she said.

     That was Beryl’s cue. She swung her legs over the side of the ledge and dropped down to the street below, landing with a small thud a dozen paces behind the turned back of the nearest Dentevi.

     At the sound of Beryl’s arrival on the scene, all six members of the Dentevi delegation spun around to face her. The swordsmen unsheathed their various blades, and Beryl could sense the sorcerers gathering in their mana.

     “Who are you, and why are you here?” the matriarch demanded.

     “Who I am isn’t really important,” Beryl said. “The why part, that’s the important part. I’m here to tell you that, whatever it is you’re planning, it stops right here, right now.” Beryl pointed at the iron chest on the ground at the angel’s feet. “For starters, that means making sure that those slave collars you just bought don’t wind up in the wrong hands.”

     The matriarch gave a little signal to the female sorceress. An orb of white light appeared in the sorceress’s hands, then drifted upwards to hover above the street, where it cast an unnatural, pale glow across the features of all present. As Beryl’s face became visible, she saw recognition flash across the matriarch’s face, which then contorted in anger.

     “You,” the matriarch said, practically spitting the word. “Astria Trevanei offered me her personal assurances that you were dead.”

     “If it makes you feel any better, she thought that I was dead. But that’s hardly relevant to the matter at hand.” Beryl focused on clearing her mind of extraneous thoughts, on acknowledging the anger which she could feel bubbling up inside her and creeping into the tone of her voice. “I don’t particularly like making threats, and I’m frankly not very good at them, so I will just explain the present situation to you in the simplest possible terms,” she said, addressing her comments directly to the matriarch, since she knew that the others would take their cues from her. “I will not allow you to leave here with the contents of that chest, which leaves you with a straightforward choice: you can write this deal off as a bad idea and walk away now, or you can try to keep your awful little collars, in which case you won’t be walking away at all. It’s all up to you, but I know which choice I would make.”

     Beryl could feel the fire starting to build within her, could feel the mana that she was gathering almost without intending to. She knew without looking that the tips of her fingers had started to glow.

     The matriarch practically vibrated with anger. “How dare you presume to address me in such a manner? You are nameless, unworthy of my acknowledgement, and you have already slain four of my House. And yet you dare to make threats on my life?” The matriarch pointed a shaking finger at Beryl. “Your life is the one which is forfeit. Any less would bring shame and dishonor on our name.”

     “Living with shame is a terrible fate, and I know from whence I speak,” Beryl said. As she spoke, she began to smell the dry, slightly-burnt smell of heat in the air around her. “But dying in shame is worse. You said it yourself: I’ve already killed four of you. I don’t want to add six more, but I will if you don’t give me a choice. This doesn’t have to end like that. You can still turn around and leave.”

     The silver-haired matriarch seemed to hesitate for a moment. Then she spun around to face the angel, who had stood passively by throughout the confrontation.

     “And you, are you going to just stand there?” the matriarch demanded, her hands balled into fists. “This murderer is attempting to steal from us that which we’ve rightly bought and paid for. Aren’t you going to do something about it?”

     The angel’s face was a pale blank. “Your business with Mister Vane has been concluded,” she repeated. “My master is not a party to these events, and has no obligation to you or anyone else present.” And, with that, she took an additional step backwards, and crossed her arms in front of her chest.

     The infuriated matriarch turned back to Beryl again, who was now visibly glowing, her whole body like a white-hot filament.

     “Kill her,” the matriarch said.

     “Fine,” Beryl said back, as the two knights with drawn longswords broke into a run towards her, and the two Dentevi sorcerers each raised their arms in her direction.

     An explosive boom cracked around her as a wave of flames and heat rolled off of Beryl and out towards the charging swordsmen. It was on them before they could even react. Their cloaks burst into flames, as did their eyebrows and hair. One of the men dropped his red-hot sword with a kind of choked, rasping scream, and reached up to cover his burning eyes with his hands, only to scream even louder as his flesh blistered and burned beneath his fingertips. The other swordsman’s mouth had been open when the flames struck him. Fire and boiling air had raced down his throat, burning away his vocal cords and rendering him mute as he tumbled to the ground, so that the only sounds coming from him were the sizzling and popping of his bare flesh where it came into contact with the searing-hot plates of his armor.

     Beryl watched the knights burn and die through a kind thin, red haze which had colored her vision. She could feel the air vibrating around her, could feel her own blood vibrating in time with it, could feel that same blood pounding behind her eardrums, surging through her one working eye. She felt as though she were in a state of heightened consciousness that was nearly overwhelming in its intensity, such that time seemed to dilate and slow, and she was aware of every single sensation that coursed through her body, of every single instinct that flared through her mind. It was a kind of strange, serene sense of being present within herself which she only ever experienced when the fire took over. But, at the same time, she felt almost disconnected from her own actions. It was as though her body moved of its own accord, and she knew what she needed to do only after she had done it. Like she didn’t have to think, but instead merely to feel, and to react.

     Beryl looked away from the knights and towards the sorcerer on her left. There was a bolt of lightning leaping from his hands and arcing towards her, and she was fascinated by how slowly it seemed to move. She made no effort to evade it; instead, she stepped directly into the bolt’s path. She swept her left arm out in front of her in a wide arc, raising a circle of protection which glimmered in the air before her like a gossamer shell. The bolt struck her protective spell and vanished into the aether with a crackle of static and a flash of intense white light. Beryl brought her other hand up and pointed it in the startled sorcerer’s direction. A jet of banefire erupted from her fingertips and raced towards the opposing mage, passing through her own protective barrier and the one which he struggled feebly to raise as though neither were present. The sorcerer hardly had time to cry out before fire met flesh and his body was reduced to glowing embers and blackened bones.

     Sensing movement to her right, Beryl stepped instinctively to the side and out of the way of the arcing greatsword which sliced through the space which she had occupied the moment before. As its blade flashed past her face, she could see the glowing runes which covered its surface, and her enchanter’s mind instinctively processed the spells placed upon the polished metal: wards against corrosion of the cutting edge, curses to cause the wounds it left to bleed, and protections against its use in the hands of another. While the sword’s hulking holder fought to change the direction of its momentum-laden swing, Beryl reached out to the blade’s enchantments with her mind, and channeled her own energy into them. The various runes suddenly flared with a nova-like flash of light, and the sword which bore them shattered into a hail of molten-red shrapnel. The giant Dentevi recoiled in surprise and pain as he was peppered with the remnants of his weapon. Little trickles of blood appeared all across his face and arms where the shrapnel had riddled them, and he stared almost mutely down at the mangled remnants of his hand into which the blade’s hilt had exploded. He was so preoccupied by the effects of the blast that he didn’t even seem to notice as Beryl rounded on him and struck him square in the chest with a fireblast which knocked him off of his feet and sent his lifeless body tumbling to the ground in a massive, smoking heap.

     This left Beryl standing nearly face-to-face with the matriarch. Beryl was close enough to see the surprise and fear in the silver-haired woman’s eyes. She saw the woman’s lips move, though she hardly heard the words which emerged, and she saw the matriarch’s hand begin to rise up, saw the otherworldly tendrils of black energy which had started to coil around it. Beryl didn’t recognize the spell which the matriarch was trying to work, but she didn’t wait to find out any more about it. Instead, she pivoted quickly on the balls of her feet and ducked down low beneath the stream of dark energy which ripped through the air above her head. As she did, she conjured her own firebolt into being and shot it upward into the stunned matriarch’s face.

     Beryl had to close her eye as a cloud of cinders filled the air around her, and the acrid smell of burning flesh filled her nostrils. That smell triggered a flood of memories which came rushing up from the depths of her subconscious, and she suddenly started in place, as though she were waking from a dream. The pounding in her ears started to subside, and time seemed to return to its normal speed. She sucked air into her lungs, suddenly desperate for breath, and as she opened her eye the red haze began to clear slowly from her vision.

     Five corpses lay on the ground around her, in various states of charred rigidity, with trails of sickly black smoke rising up through the gaps in the dead men’s armor. The iron chest lay on the street in front of her, and behind it stood the pale angel, silent and stone-faced, her eyes on Beryl, her arms still crossed, her expression unreadable.

     Beryl heard a kind of muffled sob come from just off to her right, and she turned to see the young Dentevi sorceress crouched down on the cobblestone street. She was curled into a nearly fetal ball, with her knees pulled up into her chest and her arms wrapped tightly around them.

     Beryl searched her memory of the fight, which was already fading away with an alarming speed. She mainly recalled little isolated bits and pieces: a sound, a smell, a still image – a kind of patchwork recollection knitted together only by the threads of emotion. The overall effect was incomplete, but she could remember enough to realize that the young sorceress who lay before her on the ground had not cast a single spell during the exchange. Beryl realized that the woman must have taken cover as soon as the killing started. In the heat of the moment, Beryl had not even noticed her absence.

     Fear, Beryl thought. Self-preservation. Normal, human reactions. Why did they seem so out of place?

     Beryl walked over to where the young woman sat and knelt down next to her. She reached out and took the sorceress by the arm.

     The young woman howled in pain as Beryl’s fingers wrapped around her wrist. The black fabric of her robe smoldered beneath Beryl’s searing grasp, and the woman’s sobbing grew loud and ragged.

     “I’m sorry,” Beryl said. “I don’t mean to hurt you, and I wish I didn’t have to do it, but I need you to focus right now. I need you to look at me, and to listen to me, and I can’t let go of you unless you do. Are you listening?”

     The sorceress turned her frightened, tear-filled brown eyes up to meet Beryl’s green one, and she nodded her head slightly. Beryl could see the terror written across the other woman’s face.

     They were about the same age, Beryl thought. They might even have known each other as children.

     Beryl adjusted her grip slightly, so that her fingertips didn’t keep burning the same places on the other woman’s skin. The sorceress winced and whimpered a little bit, but did not break eye contact.

     “I need you to leave and to go back to your House. I need you to tell them what happened here. Tell them who I am. Tell them what I did. Tell them that I took your slave collars, and that I killed your people. And tell them that you fought me hard, that you did your best, and that I only left you alive so that you could give them a message, and the message is this: No more. This stops here. All the intrigue, all the killing. Whatever game your House is playing at, it stops here. Do you understand?”

     The woman nodded, but Beryl shook her head.

     “I need to hear you say it.”

     “I understand,” the woman said, her voice small and ragged.

     “Good. Because I mean it. No more reprisals, no more revenge. Honor be damned, it has to end here. And that specifically applies to House Trevanei. They’re not your enemy. But I will be, if anyone else gets hurt. Do you understand?”

     “I understand,” the woman said.

     “Good. Because, from this day forth, if a Dentevi so much as harms a Trevanei — and I mean Astria Trevanei in particular — I’m going to know about it, and you can count on me to overreact. Make sure they understand that,” Beryl said. “You have to make them understand, because if I have to do it, it’s going to end like this.” She gestured at the charred corpses nearby.

     The frightened woman nodded her head again. “I understand,” she said.

     “Good,” Beryl said. She let go of the sorceress’s wrist. “Now go. Get out of here.”

     The young Dentevi sorceress scrambled to her feet and took off at a run.

     Beryl closed her eye for a second, and tried to remember what Aloise had said. About how people were more than just the sum of their actions.

     She opened her eye and looked around at the five dead bodies one more time, and she prayed that Aloise was right.

     Finally, after a long, silent minute, Beryl stood up and walked over to the iron chest where it lay on the ground. The lid was not locked, and she lifted it up, revealing two dozen black velvet pouches with golden drawstrings. Beryl picked up one of the velvet bags, loosened the string, turned the pouch upside down, and shook its contents out into the chest below.

     The artifact which fell out looked like an elegant choker. It was delicately made from interlinked medallions of yellow gold, each about the size of a thumbprint, and joined together in the back by an ornate butterfly clasp. Each of the rounded links was inlaid with bands of lapis and jet, arranged into what looked like a simple geometric pattern.

     To the unwary eye, it simply looked beautiful. But Beryl’s knack for enchantment allowed her to see that the pattern of the inlay was not purely geometric. She could see the words concealed within its loops and swirls.

     She reached down and picked up the collar. The moment her fingers closed around it, she felt dark magic surge up through her body. She felt the collar’s power reaching out for her, clawing at her, grasping at her mind, searching for an opening to worm in and take hold.

     With a startled gasp, she dropped the collar back down onto the pile.

     What had surprised her was not the nature of the enchantment, or even its strength. She had been prepared for those.

     No. What surprised her was the vision she saw as she held the device.

     She saw her sister. She saw her sister who, from what Fisco had told her, had wanted to purchase collars like this for herself.

     She saw Astria, with embers burning in the black depths of her eyes, holding one of the thrall collars in her hands and reaching out towards her, reaching for her neck.

     Then she had blinked and dropped the collar, and the vision had gone.

     And then Beryl was brought roughly back to reality by the sound of the angel’s voice.

     “Mister Vane has fulfilled his end of your bargain,” the angel said. “He will contact you again when your debt to him comes due.”

     Beryl looked up at the angel’s knowing but guileless face. Seen up close, her expression somehow appeared both serene and troubled at the same time, and she radiated a kind of tragic beauty.

     “I understand,” Beryl said. “What were Mister Vane’s specific instructions for you — assuming you can tell me?”

     The angel paused for a second before answering. “My instructions were to observe your actions, and to intervene to protect you if I judged it necessary.”

     Beryl reached down and picked up the golden collar. Again, she felt its malign magic surge up through her fingertips. But, mercifully, there was no accompanying vision this time.

     She held the collar up for the angel to see.

     “Did he give you any instructions on what to do with these?”

     “No,” the angel said. Beryl noticed that the angel’s eyes shifted slightly downward, so that her gaze was subtly averted from the object in Beryl’s hands.

     “Do you know what these are?” Beryl asked.

     “Yes,” the angel said.

     “And do you approve of what Fisco Vane does, or do your feelings not enter into it, either?”

     “It is not my place to judge my master’s decisions in this matter.”

     “You call him your master,” Beryl said. “Why? Did he put one of these on you?” The collar’s gold links jangled lightly against each other as Beryl gave the device a little shake.

     “No,” the angel said, with a firmness which took Beryl by surprise.

     “Then why do you work for a man like Fisco Vane? Why take his orders? Why be a part of things like this?” Again, Beryl shook the collar in her hand.

     “I am bound to Mister Vane,” the angel said.

     “How? I know a thing or two about magical bonds, and breaking them. I could try to set you free,” Beryl said.

     The angel shook her head. “My bond is of a different kind,” she said.

     For a moment, Beryl was silent. She stared at the angel, who stared placidly but implacably back.

     “What’s your name?” Beryl finally asked.

     “Diana,” the angel said.

     “Diana, my name is Beryl,” Beryl said.

     “I know,” the angel said.

     “Yes, I suppose you do,’’ Beryl said.

     Beryl looked down at the collar in her hand, and closed her eye. Then she sent a surge of white mana coursing through the metal, which crackled for a moment with light and heat as the enchantments on it were broken and purged clean.

     When Beryl opened her eye again and looked back down at the object in her hand, it was inert and lifeless. Just a pretty necklace, nothing more.

     Slowly, one by one, she took the other collars from their black velvet pouches, and disenchanted each one of them in turn. Then she closed the lid of the chest, leaving a tangled pile of jewelry inside.

     She looked back up at Diana.

     “Did you see what you needed to see?” Beryl asked.

     “I did,” the angel said.

     Diana held a hand out towards Beryl and opened her fingers to reveal a small, round coin with a circular hole at its center.

     “Mister Vane asked that I give you this,” the angel said. “Do you know what it is?”

     Beryl nodded her head. She reached out and took the coin from the angel’s hand and slipped it into her pocket.

     “Give Mister Vane my thanks,” Beryl said. “And can you please give him a message from me as well?”

     The angel nodded.

     Beryl looked the angel in her sad, cool eyes. “Your master called this world a nest of vipers, you know?” she said. “Well, he’s right. It is a nest of vipers, and, those of us who live here, we’re already drowning in our own venom. Tell Fisco that we don’t need anyone else pouring more venom on top. Tell him that we’re bad enough on our own. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

     The angel nodded again. “I will convey your sentiments to Mister Vane,” she said.

     “That’s all I ask. Thank you, Diana.”

     The angel nodded one final time, and then she vanished.

 

* * *

 

     Astria Trevanei woke with a shiver. Her toes were cold.

     She blinked once, twice, three times. Tried to clear the sleep from her eyes. What time was it?

     The room around her was dark. Nighttime. She rubbed her eyes with a cold hand. Why was it so cold?

     The answer came to her a moment later, when she felt a faint breeze against her face. As her eyes adjusted to the gloomy half-light, she could see the chiffon drapes rustling gently.

     That was odd. She could have sworn she had closed the window before retiring. The nights had grown cold of late.

     She freed her legs from tangled silk sheets and eased them over the side of the bed. The marble floor felt cold beneath her bare feet. Stifling a yawn, she trudged over to the window and pulled it shut, making sure this time that the latch was secured.

     She stood in place for a moment. Her nose wrinkled. The night wind had carried a strange aroma in with it. She sniffed the air. It smelled faintly of... what was it? Something burnt.

     She was still trying to place the unpleasant odor when her heart skipped a beat.

     "Hello, Astria," said a familiar voice from behind her. "We need to talk."

 

V. Epilogue

 

     Diana entered the room where she knew Fisco was waiting. Even if she couldn’t sense his presence within, the curling wisps of smoke which rose up from the high-backed chair in front of the fireplace would have given away her master’s location.

     Without speaking, he bid her to approach, which she did, walking around the side of the chair so that his profile was visible in the reflected glow of the firelight.

     “Tell me everything,” he said, and she did. She reported the events which had happened on Aliavelli back to Fisco in full detail. She studied his expressions as she did, watching his eyes move as he considered the various possible implications of the things she told him.

     When she got to Beryl’s message at the end, she heard Fisco chuckle, and saw him take a long, languid puff from his cigar.

     Finally, he spoke.

     “This Beryl woman,” he said. “Is she good for her word?”

     Diana hesitated for a long moment before answering.

     “Yes,” she said.

     Fisco turned to face her. He took his cigar out of his mouth.

     “Yes, but what?” he said.

     Again, Diana paused before speaking as she tried to choose the proper words.

     “Yes, but she’s dangerous,” the angel said. “More dangerous than even she knows.”

     Fisco appeared to consider Diana’s words for a moment. Then he put his cigar back between his teeth, and a shark-like smile crept across his face.

     “Good,” he said. “Very good.”


"Friends and Killers" by RuwinReborn and OrcishLibrarian was originally published as part of the Expanded Multiverse project.

To learn more, and to read more Expanded Multiverse stories, please visit the Expanded Multiverse forum at No Goblins Allowed.


Aloise Hartley, Fisco Vane, and Diana are original characters created by RuwinReborn for the Expanded Multiverse.

Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use. 

All works copyright their respective creators.


The Lies We Tell

The Lies We Tell

The Wind and the Waves

The Wind and the Waves